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North Dakota’s fiery oil train crash could happen here

Editor's note: The following is a Letter to the Editor. It's under the "opinion" section until a "Letters" tab is reinstated.


Thanks to The Evening Sun's editor Ashley Biviano for yesterday's news and photograph from last week's horrifying North Dakota oil train crash and fire. This reminded us of Oxford Visionaries' full-page “Terror Train” report the Sun published August 13, 2013. In it we warned that local politicians seem to be inviting this kind of dangerous train disaster here.

Here are some excerpts from that previous Sun report describing the aftermath of last summer's deadly oil train accident in Lac-Megantic, Canada and its relevance to our communities:

“There are still cars filled with gasoline,” said Sgt. Michel Brunet about the hazardous scene. “There are still 10 to 15 buildings that have six feet of fuel in the basement. We have to empty all of them to see if there are any bodies in there.”

Before that Saturday morning, these “bodies” had names, joys, dreams, disappointments. Now hundreds of rescue workers are using garden rakes to find their remnants. Families of the missing were asked to produce personal items that could contain the missing person’s DNA, such as baseball caps, toothbrushes, razors and combs.

Many of us have dreamed of a quiet commuter and sightseeing train running through the Village and Town of Oxford along a rebuilt Utica Line.

The Chenango County Board of Supervisors is aggressively seeking to "revitalize" the Susquehanna & Western Railroad with public funds but under corporate ownership and explicitly to transport loaded tankers for the area's expected fracking boom. Compressed, liquified "natural" gas is infinitely more volatile than crude oil. Imagine what would remain of Oxford if 72 railroad tanker cars of compressed methane exploded downtown? What if a packed east side Oxford Academy school bus was patiently waiting at the crossing for the train to pass?

Since 2009, the number of train cars carrying fossil fuel hauled by major railroads jumped from about 10,000 a year to a projected 200,000 last year. There is legally nothing to prevent these same rail tankers speeding crude oil, methane, deadly chemicals and fracking fluid through Sherburne, Norwich, Oxford, Brisben and Greene.

As one American official complained, “We have very limited regulatory authority over rail, and this is true for all of the states. We can’t tell railroads where they can take freight, [and] we can’t tell railroads what they can bring in as freight. Because the railways are governed exclusively at the federal level, we’re pre-empted.”

Another reported "They've been using old rail cars to ship oil, despite the fact that regulators warned the federal government they were unsafe, as far back as 20 years ago.” A more recent report by a federal agency reminded the government that the cars could be "subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials." All these official warnings were ignored by greedy petroleum and railroad executives.


Earlier, the March 3, 2009 Evening Sun reported official efforts to reactivate the Utica Line:

“In 2008, the [Chenango County] development agency commissioned TranSystems/Stone Consulting to study the portion of New York Susquehanna & Western railroad’s Utica Line , which stretches through 42 miles of Chenango County. The study was funded in part by the Chenango County Board of Supervisors. . .”

. . .[the consultants] were specifically asked to assess the current condition of the track and determine the potential for redeveloping rail service along the line as well as identify possible funding sources and business opportunities.” www.evesun.com/news/stories/2009-03-03/6414/Study-gauges-potential-rail-redevelopment/

The study estimated the line could be restored for $1.15 million.

Notably the report rejected a scenic or excursion railway, a dinner train or a “Rails with Trails” arrangement, with a walking or bike path running adjacent to the existing track. The study found none of these options either practical or economically viable.

However, the report affirmed rail opportunities for natural gas exploration in Chenango County, specifically transportation of toxic, radioactive brine to water treatment facilities.

The Utica Line tracks run through the middle of the City of Norwich and six other Chenango County towns and villages. Do the math. On average only seven to eight miles separate heavy population concentrations. A rail accident would likely involve dozens of tankers transporting large quantities of extremely volatile substances and impact dramatically one or more city, town or village.

If methane gas creates a greater explosion and more intense heat than crude oil, how many tank cars would have to crash and burn to level half of Norwich? A catastrophe of this magnitude in Oxford Village would create “Lake Oxford” when the crater fills with melted snow or rain water. And what about the huge floodplain on both sides of Oxford's stretch of the Chenango River? The many acres of farmland and dairies nearby?

Even if miraculously no deaths or injuries occurred, health and safety evacuations of all residents would be required: schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Imagine that nightmare during this week's subfreezing temperature, deep snow and dangerous highway conditions.

North Dakota had a head start on massive gas and oil industrialization. New York has so far been spared because of the statewide moratorium and local bans like Oxford Village's, thanks to a courageous board. Other states such as Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and Ohio have suffered tragically as guinea pigs.

After last week's disaster near little Casselton, ND, its mayor, Ed McConnell, told The Associated Press, “There have been numerous derailments in this area. It’s almost gotten to the point that it looks like not if we’re going to have an accident, it’s when.”

Despite our Evening Sun warning last year, gas supporters and even some uninformed anti-gas activists doubted that a deadly oil train derailment and fire could happen here.

We repeat from last August's report, once the railroad line is restored to operation, “there is legally nothing to prevent these same rail tankers speeding crude oil, methane, deadly chemicals and fracking fluid through Sherburne, Norwich, Oxford, Brisben and Greene.”

Write your Town Supervisor to oppose revitalizing the Utica Line until the Federal Government bans rail transport of highly explosive fossil fuels through populated areas.

The Oxford Town Board meets next Wednesday night in the Bank Building at 7:30. Will the board resubmit its 2007 zoning laws that open our agricultural and commercial areas to gas drilling, undefined new “material staging areas” and pipelines to encourage gas rail transport?

Your opinion counts—but only if you express it. If you cannot attend, email the Town Clerk, Jim Hemstrought at townofoxford@stny.rr.com.

Speak up so your children and grandchildren won't spend the rest of their lives in fear like the little ones in Lac-Megantic and North Dakota.

For more information visit OxfordVisionaries.org.

Ellen Anderson

Irving Wesley Hall


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